The Month in Mines: January 2013 by Landmines in Africa

I could not come up with a good, broad narrative for January in regards to landmines on the continent.  There is some very bad news from Mali and Algeria with reports of new landmine use by rebel groups and there is some very good news as Somalia, Angola and Uganda continue to make progress towards assisting survivors and clearing minefields.  However there is also a cautionary tale about the danger of tampering with landmines from Zimbabwe (in a story that if it were not true, no one would believe it) and from Angola a reminder of the legacy of Princess Diana which also, unwittingly, reveals the desperate state of landmine survivors there.  In between we also hear from Rwanda and the Sudans.

Algeria

Whisper it, but the truth is coming out: Gaddhafi’s arsenal is in the hands of people that no government would want it to be in.  With so much focus by the United States on securing the anti-aircraft rockets known as MANPADS, the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of small arms and explosives that Gaddhafi had stockpiled were allowed to be carried out of Libya in 2011.  An Islamist group seized control of a natural gas facility run by British Petroleum and Norway’s Statoil in Ain Amenas, Algeria holding dozens of hostages.  Using Belgian-made landmines spirited out of Libya, the militants set up defensive perimeters to try and slow down the Algerian forces that eventually overpowered and killed the militants (along with several hostages, others of whom were killed by the militants).  There is concern that if landmines and other weapons are in the hands of Islamist militants in Algeria, they could also be in the hands of others, including the rebels in Mali (The Guardian; The Associated Press).

Mali

When the French military began its operations against the Islamist militants who had seized northern Mali, there were initial reports from the Islamists themselves that they would use landmines to protect the territory they controlled.  World Vision raised the alarm about the potential danger of landmines less than a week after the French forces arrived, using mine-risk education to warn children of the dangers of tampering with landmines and other unexploded ordnance (All Africa).  As the French forces moved northward and being mindful of the warnings issued by the Islamists, they moved slowly to ensure that roads to and from Diabaly were free of landmines (Voice of America; All Africa).

From BBC News: Map of Mali showing French & Rebel positions, as of January 26, 2013

From BBC News: Map of Mali showing French & Rebel positions, as of January 26, 2013

On January 31st, the threats of landmines became reality as two Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine on the road between Douentza and Hombori.  The two towns had been liberated from Islamist control by French forces and according to a security source, “We strongly suspect the Islamists placed this landmine. It happened in an area which had been under their control. But we don’t know if it was placed before they left or if they came back to place it” (The Daily Monitor), but later reports suggest that the mine was laid after the area had been recaptured (France 24). In another, apparently separate incident also on January 31st, four more Malian soldiers were killed and another five people injured by a landmine on the road between Gossi and Gao (The Guardian; Voice of America).  Gao had been the site of the first reports of landmines several months ago and this incident could be the first confirmation that the Islamists’ threats to use landmines were true.

Sudan and South Sudan

In Sudan’s Blue Nile State (on the border of South Sudan and Ethiopia), landmines are prevalent in many areas.  The United Nations (presumably the UN’s Mine Action Service, UNMAS) and the national mine action authority will train demining teams to clear 15 hazardous areas around the locality of Bao.  Blue Nile state continues to be plagued by conflict as a result of unresolved issues from the civil war that led to the secession of South Sudan, but the promise to clear mines in spite of the conflict is promising to those who live in and around Bao (Sudan Radio).

The disputed Abyei region remains a flash point between the two Sudans and South Sudan has recently accused Sudan of trying to unilaterally resolve the Abyei issue, which in all fairness is what Khartoum has tried several times.  The presence of landmines in Abyei ensures that the thousands of residents who fled the region during fighting in 2011 remain in displacement camps, unable to return home.  With a new referendum on Abyei’s future planned for October, the continuing absence of those displaced individuals could affect the referendum’s outcome, demonstrating the political (in addition to humanitarian) impacts of landmines (All Africa).

In Juba, UNMAS, the South Sudan National Mine Action Authority and mine action partners hosted a “Mine Action Open Day” to highlight the impact of mine action in South Sudan.  Residents could observe mine action techniques including “demonstrations of dogs detecting explosive vapours, manual mine clearance road surveys, battle area clearance, explosive ordnance disposal and equipment used in demining activities.”  The partners reported that 2 million people had received mine risk education, and 50,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance had been cleared from 71 million square meters of land.  To reinforce the importance of mine action, survivors of landmines also took part and the father of a six year-old survivor “told the attendees to heed the danger landmines and other unexploded ordnances posed, as they discriminated against neither age nor class” (ReliefWeb).

Uganda

Despite the massive corruption scandals in Uganda that have caused some donors to suspend all aid to Uganda, reconstruction progress is being made in Northern Uganda, the region affected by two decades of rebellion from the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Demining, such as that done by the Danish Demining Group, has allowed access to agricultural lands which had previously been dangerous.  With 80% of the population of Northern Uganda dependent upon small-scale farming, any land lost to landmines equals livelihoods lost (All Africa).  Still more needs to be done to ensure that victim assistance services are available to landmine survivors (and the corruption scandals have already stolen money meant to such programs).  The knee-jerk reaction of donors to suspend aid or demand its return is wrong.  The money is gone; by the time the reports are in the papers, the cash has been pocketed and laundered and any funds returned are not coming from those who stole it, but from those who were the intended beneficiaries of the aid.  If the Office of the Prime Minister in Uganda is corrupt – which it is – then work around it.  Don’t punish those who need the assistance most.

Rwanda

Rwanda presents us with a reminder of one of the most insidious issues facing landmine survivors: discrimination and prejudice against persons with disabilities.  A report tells the story of a survivor, Sifa, who lost her legs during the 1994 genocide and how in the year since, she has faced sexual assault, social exclusion and is utterly dependent upon the charity of others.  As the mother of a child of rape, Sifa also faces constant reminders of her life experiences and while “the baby was not a source of joy,” she still feels hurt because “there is nothing I can do to help her!”  In the story’s one positive note, Sifa has not given up for being independent one day and declares that “When I find enough money I will rent my own house,” and be able to look after her daughter.  Unfortunately, with no schooling and no vocational training, Sifa’s employment options are limited (All Africa).

Somalia

In the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland, the HALO Trust continues to work to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance left over from wars in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  Many of the minefields are along the borders with Ethiopia and remain uncleared while some urban areas, including the capitol, Hargeisa, remain heavily mined.  As in other mine-affected areas, individuals have “harvested” mines to re-use them exposing individuals to grave danger.  Mine clearance in Somaliland is especially tricky because most mines have only minimal quantities of metal making them difficult to detect using metal detectors, especially in the metallic soils.  Despite these problems, after a dozen years of work, the HALO Trust estimates that another five years of work remains to clear the remaining 280 hazardous areas, of which about three-quarters are roads.  By clearing the roads of mines, residents will be able to access markets which until now have been too dangerous to use (The Somaliland Sun).

Elsewhere in Somalia, specifically in Mogadishu, security forces have been working to arrest “individuals suspected of creating instability in the capital.”  After rounding up more than 3,000 individuals, 259 remain in custody.  In the security sweep, the authorities confiscated “landmines, bombs and ammunition for heavy weapons such as bazookas, AK-47s and other automatic machineguns” (All Africa).  Such security operations are important in a country where the “amount of arms owned by civilians exceeds the amount owned by the weak state by between five to seven times” and an individual can purchase a landmine for $100 or a Kalashnikov for $140 from one of the 400 “potent” weapons vendors in Mogadishu’s Bakara Market (As Safir).

Zimbabwe

What follows is a cautionary tale that includes witchcraft, greed, conmen and landmines. If it were not true, I would never be able to believe it.  I have compiled this from several sources (All Africa; All Africa; The Sunday Mail; The New Zimbabwe; All Africa; All Africa; News Day).

On January 21st, a massive explosion ripped through Chitungwiza, a densely populated suburb just south of Harare.  Six people were killed by the blast, five instantly including a seven-month-old baby, the sixth succumbed to his wounds several days later.  The explosion took place at the home of Speakmore Mandere, a local healer who was known as Sekuru Shumba.  Shumba was reputed to be able to perform traditional magic and healing.  At the scene, investigators found a clay pot and because of the injuries to a local businessman – he was “torn apart at the waist area” – investigators believed that the clay pot was the source of the blast and at the time of the explosion, the businessman was straddling the pot. Four possible causes of the blast have been identified:

  1. A local businessman, Clever Kamudzeya, had secured the services of a money-making goblin (through another healer). The goblin helped Kamudzeya grow his business, but the goblin had started to make demands of Kamudzeya and so Kamudzeya went to Shumba to dispose of the goblin.  The blast occurred after three days of ceremonies when Kamudzeya brought the goblin to Shumba to be destroyed.  The goblin fought back and destroyed itself and 12 houses.
  2. Shumba manufactured a lightning bolt but the bolt struck its source instead of its intended (and unknown) target.
  3. Shumba was conducting an enrichment medicine (muti) using a rare rodent-like animal, the sandawana.  According to a member of the Zimbabwe Traditional Healers Association, enrichment spells using the sandwana are “very dangerous” and “not recommended to be done in a house” and “usually discharged in the bush” because “it can backfire.”
  4. Shumba and Kamudzeya were tampering with an anti-tank landmine in an attempt to extract “red mercury” from the mine.

Red mercury does not exist.  In a scam that began in the 1970s, conmen would sell red powders to people looking for get-rich-quick schemes and tell them that the powder was rare and used in bomb-making and therefore valuable.  In Saudi Arabia, people were convinced that red mercury could be found in and extracted from old Singer sewing machines which raised their price five hundred-fold.  More recently, items of unexploded ordnance, including anti-tank mines, have been sold for $300 in Zambia, Angola and Zimbabwe by conmen who tell the buyers that if they can extract the red mercury, the seller could then get thousands of dollars for the non-existent material.  The explosion in Chitungwiza is the third known occasion of Zimbabweans trying to extract red mercury from explosives.  In the previous events, four people in Waterfalls were injured trying to open a grenade and in Manicaland, two conmen were arrested trying to sell unexploded mortars.

What likely happened was that Clever Kamudzeya bought an anti-tank mine and then approached Sekuru Shumba with the hope that Shumba could enrich or increase the amount of red mercury in the mine through magic.  Shumba reported charged Kamudzeya $15,000 for the procedure so Kamudzeya must have believed that the red mercury existed and was very valuable.  Both men paid for their belief with the lives and the lives of four others.

Please, please, please do not tamper with landmines or unexploded ordnance.

Angola

This space often promotes Angola as a country that is making slow but continuous progress towards becoming mine-free and for the most part, the news about Angola this month was positive and covered much of the country as various entities provided reports of their 2012 accomplishments.  In Bie Province, the HALO Trust cleared 125 landmines and another 582 pieces of unexploded ordnance (All Africa).  In Cunene Province, the Angolan Armed Forces cleared 10,000 explosive remnants of war (ERW) from 800,000 square meters (All Africa) while the National Demining Institute (INAD) cleared another 4.5 million square meters of nearly 30,000 ERW, including 80 landmines (All Africa).  In Huambo Province, INAD cleared almost five thousand pieces of ordnance from 1.3 square kilometers (All Africa).  INAD also cleared 11 million square meters of land in Lunda Norte Province of 33,000 ERW and 85 landmines (All Africa).

However, some obstacles still remain.  In Cunene Province, as the HALO Trust was working, they also discovered nine previously unknown minefields (All Africa).  In Moxico Province, the local police found 51 landmines that had been collected and stored by a local man on the playground of his home, this despite the efforts to reach millions of Angolans with warnings about the dangers of tampering with landmines (All Africa).  In Lunda Norte Province, INAD recognized that its deminers were underpaid and officials would were committed “to improving the work conditions of staff this year.”  I’m not sure exactly which work condition need to be improved, but I would think deminers would need to be working in the best conditions possible, if only for their own security (All Africa).

Lastly, in the same month that Angola named President Eduardo Dos Santos’s daughter, Isabel, as Africa’s first woman billionaire – mostly as the result of her access to the nation’s oil wealth and large shareholdings in national media and telecommunications companies (The Guardian) – we also heard about the young landmine survivor, Sandra Tigica, who was photographed with Princess Diana in 1997.  A new film about Princess Diana starring Naomi Watts is in the works, and to re-create the scene between Diana and Sandra, Sandra’s eight-year old daughter was filmed with Naomi Watts.  The Daily Mail (I know, not the greatest source of journalism, but bear with me) took advantage of the opportunity to interview Sandra and inform its readers about how meeting Diana changed her life.

The Daily Mail quotes Sandra, “Princess Dianan helped our country. It is a much safer place thanks to her… [Diana] brought hope to Angola.”  Sandra mentions that she watched the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and says that Kate should come to Angola to continue Diana’s work.  The photo of Sandra and Diana is hung on the wall of Sandra’s home and because the photo has been re-printed in schoolbooks, Sandra is often recognized because of it.  But that’s the positive side of the story.  In the interview we also get a sense of the difficulties of life in Angola, even for the most famous landmine survivor in the country.

While Sandra has a prosthetic leg, she prefers to use crutches because the “legs made here [in Angola] are too heavy and I can’t move properly.” Despite having a job and a husband in the army, Sandra’s family of six lives in a “hut with a corrugated iron roof” that measures 800 square feet. Sandra has the perception that “people have started to forget” about the threat of landmines in Angola.  Lastly, while expressing her excitement at the thought of featuring in “a big film,” Sandra says “I don’t a have a TV so cannot watch it.”  Does everyone deserve or need a television? No, but the fact that Sandra’s story has now been used twice, once to promote the landmine cause with Princess Diana and once to promote a Hollywood movie, I would think she should at least be able to see herself as portrayed by her own daughter.

Michael P. Moore

February 9, 2013

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One Comment on “The Month in Mines: January 2013 by Landmines in Africa”

  1. […] Landmines in Africa Blog, I write a monthly round-up of news stories from the Continent.  In the January 2013 round-up I wrote the summary below about an incident in Zimbabwe.  This was my first exposure (and far […]


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